UN: the “right to life” on the hot seat

Publié le 17 Nov, 2017

The UN Committee on Human Rights seeks to impose the legalisation of abortion and euthanasia to all countries.


At the UN, the Committee on Human Rights is currently rethinking the definition given to the “right to life” in international law, mentioned in the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”, signed in 1966 by the States Parties. Through this means, and with the upmost discretion, an active minority seeks to impose on all states the legalisation of abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia in the very name of the right to life.


The interpretation of the Committee raised the concern of many observers who sent their comments. The Committee will study them and decide whether or not to take them into account in the final declaration that is to be adopted in the coming months.


 Christophe Foltenlogel, jurist at the ECLJ[1] has provided gènéthique with his reading of the main issues of this revision.


The UN Committee on Human Rights is currently revising its international definition of the “right to life”. What is the content of this new text? How is it a problem?


Christophe Foltzenlogel: This Committee, which brings together 18 experts is in charge of writing an official interpretation of the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”. Periodically, it publishes “general comments” on the various articles of the Covenant and thus is currently preparing its comments on the article 6, which deals with the right to life. In this version of the project, the Committee mentions, amongst other things, the use of lethal weapons, sets limits to the use of the death penalty for all States which have not yet abolished it, and insists on the positive obligations of the States to protect life, etc. The main problem with this text is that it introduces a right to abortion and euthanasia in the name of the right to life. The article 6 of the Covenant is very clear: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” However, the Committee considers abortion should be authorised so that women may have recourse to it “safely” and invites all States to legalise euthanasia in order to guarantee the right to a “dignified life”.


G: Why has the Committee on Human Rights engaged in modifying this definition? Was it an anniversary date? Was it a request from some States?


CF: The Committee is charged by the Covenant which created it to verify its application and publish its comments concerning its application. These comments are therefore a regular and conventional procedure. It seems like the members of the Committee are rather using it as a way to promote abortion in international law.  Normally, the experts should be independent and the will of certain to legitimize abortion and euthanasia is probably more due to liberal and progressist cultural presuppositions rather than actual external pressure.



G: These modifications caused many reactions. Which people, which NGO’s and States chose to add to the debate. What is its content, the meaning of their involvement?


CF: Anyone qualified could intervene. By consequent the reactions sent to the committee were manifold: 21 States intervened, several agencies and UN organs, around thirty experts or professors and over 100 NGO’s or national organisations, of which the ECLJ on behalf of over 130 000 petitioners. States likely to receive criticism concerning certain aspects of their national legislation intervened, as well as a great number of “pro-life” or “pro-death” NGOs concerning abortion or euthanasia and even in favour of the abolition of death penalty. Around one hundred interventions defended the protection of life while only about thirty were in favour of abortion and/or suicide.


The fact that the United States wrote in their contribution that “all issues relative to the access to abortion is outside the scope of the article 6 is very positive. It should also be noted that the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities wishes for the deletion of the sentences which demands that States authorize abortion “where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or when the foetus suffers from fatal impairment”. Its arguments are entirely appropriate: “Laws which explicitly allow for abortion on grounds of impairment violate the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Art. 4,5,8). Even if the condition is considered fatal, there is still a decision made on the basis of impairment. Often it cannot be said if an impairment is fatal. Experience shows that assessments on impairment conditions are often false. Even if it is not false, the assessment perpetuates notions of stereotyping disability as incompatible with a good life.



Finally, the Danish and UK contributions illustrate the great cultural gap that is developing: while most States in the world ban abortion on demand, these two countries get upset when the words ‘pregnant women’ are used because they exclude transgender persons having given birth!



G: The French State chose to send its contribution: what was its content?


CF: Quite surprisingly, the French contribution is quite a good one. Where Sweden and Finland were eager to support the Committee’s pro-abortion paragraph, France wrote an entire comment without expressly supporting abortion, and criticised the authorisation of euthanasia. Among other things it mentions the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, which affirms that one cannot create from the right to life a diametrically opposite right, the right to death.  The French representative therefore suggests the following solution: that the terms “accelerate the end of life” may be replaced by “offering an alleviation to suffering” and that the prevention against suicide carried out by the States also includes the promotion of mental health issues.



G: What is going to happen now? Can the new definition be rejected? Reported? Modified? Adopted as such?


CF: The Committee got together on 27th October and early November to examine these comments in order to rethink its general observations. The discussions went down the wrong path. Among the members unfavourable to a “right to abortion”, several did not come to the meetings and only the German member, Anja Seibert-Fohr, tried in vain to obtain the recognition of the “legitimate interest of States to protect the life of the foetus”.

The committee took practically no notice of the comments. Some, such as Olivier de Frouville from France and Sarah Cleveland from the US, tried to get a vote in favour of a text even more radical than the one we have just criticised. The Expert from Tunisia, Yadh Ben Achour went as far as promoting the elimination of disabled foetuses. The only good news is that they did not manage to finish examining the paragraph and therefore were unable to adopt it. Discussion will be reopened sometime next March.




G: Can this new definition be imposed on the laws of countries. Why? How? What are the implications?

CF: In theory yes, but it is quite delicate. The general comments of this Committee represent, as it were, the ultimate “soft law”, i.e., the law which applies to States in a non-binding manner. If the Committee was to affirm a right to abortion in the name of the right to life, the various States could denounce such an interpretation, and declare that it was not that to which they engaged when they signed the Convention. However, on an international level, they would be the target of continual blame by other States and NGOs. It will be up to them to resist the international pressure of being pointed at.  The European Court and other jurisdictions or international Committees will also use these observations from the Committee to push States into legalising euthanasia. Sates and especially national parties in favour of abortion will be able to invoke international law to back their attempts at legalising abortion in several countries. For example, where abortion is illegal, the government or a party could suggest a draft law legalising abortion using the argument of the necessity of “conforming to international law”…


G: Is this text proposal progress for human rights? Why?

CF: No, in its globality the text is a repetition of things already established by the treaty and Committee’s jurisprudence. Its addition on abortion and euthanasia is objectively contrary to the principle it is supposed to defend. It is based on the presumption that abortion could be “safe” so long as it is legal and carried out by trained health professionals, while in reality there is no “safe” medical act, as there is always a risk. While the foetus’ very existence is protected in this article through the ban on inflicting a death penalty on a pregnant woman, it is completely ignored by the Committee in this observation project. As we said in the summary of our observations: “Under the appearance of progress concerning individual autonomy, the affirmation of the ‘freedom to die’ and the ‘right to kill’ is a regression of human rights carried by the inegalitarian conception of man who admits, and even encourages the sacrifice of the weakest. The victims will be poor and isolated women, elderly people, the sick, the disabled, and the unborn children, such as already proven by statistics on abortion and euthanasia. If such an interpretation was to prevail, the respect of human life would only be guaranteed to the sole individuals born healthy, abandoning the lives of the weakest to the strongest and thus opening to way to eugenics and transhumanism. This conception of humanity is precisely that which was condemned in 1948, during the Nuremberg trial.”


See more :

UN: the definition of the right to life is under debate 

Committee on disabilities: the prenatal selection of disabled babies is discriminatory

At the UN – A new partial definition of “the right to life”


[1] European Centre for Law and Justice: www.eclj.org

[2]  Source: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/CCPR/GCArticle6/CRPD.docx



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